Finkelstein's "Holocaust Industry" Reviewed
The Nation reviews The Holocaust Industry
Cloud After Auschwitz
The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish
By Norman Finkelstein. Verso. 150 pp. $23.
You have "little trace," exclaimed Gershom Scholem in a letter he sent
to the great Jewish political philosopher Hannah Arendt, of "love for
the Jewish people." It was the early 1960s, and Scholem, one of Israel's
most prominent intellectuals, was responding to her analysis of Adolf
Scholem's attack was spurred by several assertions Arendt had made,
including her allegation that the Jewish officials in the ghettos-the
Judenrat-expedited the extermination machine; if they had not
collaborated with the Nazis, Arendt wrote, fewer Jews would have been
Scholem's criticism expressed the prevailing view held by Israel's
elite. Not surprisingly, Arendt was censored in Israel, and it took
thirty-six years before an Israeli press agreed to translate her
writings. Although the recent appearance of Eichmann in Jerusalem in
Hebrew has rekindled an age-old debate, it seems that Israelis can
relate to the Holocaust in a more mature way.
Corners of the Jewish establishment in the United States may not be
ready to cope with similarly forceful criticism, though, judging from
the response to Norman Finkelstein's The Holocaust Industry. A review
put forth in the New York Times tossed it aside as "an ideological
fanatic's view of other people's opportunism, by a writer so reckless
and ruthless in his attacks that he is prepared to defend his own
enemies, the bastions of Western capitalism, and to warn that 'The
Holocaust' will stir up an anti-Semitism whose significance he otherwise
discounts." There are two major problems with this line of criticism.
First, it summarily dismisses Finkelstein's arguments without any
attempt to engage his disturbing accusations. Second, instead of
concentrating on the book, the reviewer goes after the author, implying
that Finkelstein, the son of survivors, represents a neoteric breed
anti-Semite. In this way, it resembles the assault on Arendt.
On the book's first page Finkelstein distinguishes between the actual
historical events of the Nazi holocaust and "The Holocaust," a term
denoting an "ideological weapon." He notifies the reader that The
Holocaust Industry deals only with the ideological component, which
used to cast both Israel and "the most successful ethnic group in the
United States" as victims. Victim status, in turn, says Finkelstein,
enables the Zionist state, which has "a horrendous human rights record,"
to deflect criticism, and US Jewish organizations (the American Jewish
Committee, the American Jewish Congress and others) to advance dubious
Others have already shown that the holocaust has served to justify
pernicious acts. Tom Segev, a leading Israeli journalist, said as much
over a decade ago in his book The Seventh Million. In the early 1980s,
Israeli scholar Boaz Evron observed that the holocaust is often
discussed by "a churning out of slogans and a false view of the world,
the real aim of which is not at all an understanding of the past, but
the manipulation of the present." Thus, Finkelstein's contribution
the existing literature involves his concentration on US Jewish
organizations. He attempts to go beyond Peter Novick's The Holocaust
American Life [see Jon Wiener, "Holocaust Creationism," July 12, 1999],
which focused in part on abuses committed by Jewish organizations and
intellectuals, by providing a much more radical critique. Finkelstein
strives to show how the organizations have "shrunk the stature of
[Jewish] martyrdom to that of a Monte Carlo casino."
The major claim of the first chapter, "Capitalizing the Holocaust,"
that until the 1960s "American Jewish elites 'forgot' the Nazi
holocaust," their public obliviousness induced by a fear of being
accused of "dual loyalty." Finkelstein urges the reader to keep in
that the United States opposed Israel's 1956 invasion of Egypt and
not become an ardent champion of the Jewish state until the mid-1960s.
Accordingly, he avers, Jewish elites were apprehensive about
accentuating the holocaust for fear that this would be interpreted
favoring Israel over the United States.
The reader is also reminded that after World War II, Germany became
crucial postwar American ally in the US confrontation with the Soviet
Union." It was, I believe along with the author, a sad moment in Jewish
history when organizations like the American Jewish Committee and the
Anti-Defamation League "actively collaborated in the McCarthy-era witch
hunt." The crux of Finkelstein's argument in this context is that Jewish
organizations "remembered" the holocaust only after the United States
and Israel had formed a strategic cold war alliance. They suddenly
realized that "The Holocaust" (in its capitalized form) could be
employed as an ideological tool.
Finkelstein does not hesitate to use blunt language rather than
euphemism; and although he usually applies words in a precise manner,
times he gets carried away in his analysis. For instance, at the very
end of the first chapter, after discussing the dissolution of the
longstanding alliance between American Jews and blacks, he claims that
"just as Israelis, armed to the teeth by the United States, courageously
put unruly Palestinians in their place, so American Jews courageously
put unruly Blacks in their place." The book offers no support for the
sentence's second clause; the analogy it sets up, too, is erroneous
can easily be used to discredit Finkelstein and thus his more serious
The book's principal weakness, however, develops in its second chapter,
"Hoaxers, Hucksters and History." Finkelstein dedicates this portion
the book to undermining two "central dogmas" that "underpin the
Holocaust framework: (1) The Holocaust marks a categorically unique
historical event; (2) The Holocaust marks the climax of an irrational,
eternal Gentile hatred of Jews."
My criticism has nothing to do with Finkelstein's analysis of the second
dogma, whose paradigmatic example is Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing
Executioners. The main thesis underlying Goldhagen's book-which has
acclaimed in some quarters but derided in many others-is that ordinary
Germans were no less anti-Semitic than National Socialist Party members.
Goldhagen's theory serves the notion that Jews can always fall prey
Gentiles, which makes them the quintessential and eternal victims.
if "'all people collaborated with the Nazis in the destruction of
Jewry,'" then, as Boaz Evron points out, "everything is permissible
Jews in their relationship to other people." Together with Ruth Bettina
Birn, an international expert on Nazi war crimes, Finkelstein examined
Goldhagen's references one by one, and in their book A Nation on Trial
they concluded convincingly that Hitler's Willing Executioners is not
worthy of being called an academic text.
My problem, rather, lies with Finkelstein's attempt to demonstrate that
the holocaust was not a unique historical event. I disagree with Elie
Wiesel, who for a "standard fee of $25,000 (plus a chauffeured
limousine)"-in Finkelstein's aside-insists that "we cannot even talk
about it," and I follow Finkelstein's admonition that it's helpful
compare it with other historical events. Yes, Finkelstein is right
Communists, not Jews, were the first political casualties of Nazism,
that the handicapped were the first genocidal victims. He is also
correct that Gypsies were systematically murdered. But these facts
not prove that the holocaust was unique only "by virtue of time and
location," in his formulation. Even though mass genocide has occurred
elsewhere, death trains, gas ovens and Auschwitz have not. The
holocaust, including the horrific experience of European Jewry, was
Finkelstein's error is in conflating two issues: the uniqueness of the
holocaust, on the one hand, and how this uniqueness is interpreted
put to use in manipulative ways, on the other. He fails to recognize
that one need not debunk the uniqueness of an event in order to compare
it and criticize its use and abuse.
Nonetheless, when it comes to analyzing how "The Holocaust" has been
employed to advance political interests, Finkelstein is at his best.
shows how "The Holocaust" demagogues draw a link between "uniqueness"
and "Jewish chosenness" and demonstrates how both are used to justify
Israel's rightness, regardless of the context. His most notable
contribution is in the third chapter of his book, "The Double
Shakedown," where he couches as an exposé his view that "the
industry has become an outright extortion racket." The chapter deals
with a few specific cases but mainly focuses on the circumstances
leading to the compensation agreement between Switzerland and a number
of Jewish organizations. In this disturbing affair the devil is in
details, and Finkelstein has done his homework.
The empirical evidence he supplies is alarming. He documents how Jewish
organizations have consistently exaggerated numbers-of slave laborers
the amount of "victim gold" purchased by the banks-in order to secure
more money. This sort of inflation was recently repeated in an October
23 letter written by Burt Neuborne-the lead counsel in the Swiss banks
case-to The Nation. Neuborne claimed, for instance, that if one takes
into account that there were "more than 2 million wartime accounts"
whose records have been destroyed, then the $1.25 billion compensation
provided by the Swiss "barely scratches the surface of the stolen
funds." Neuborne fails to mention the findings published by the
Independent Committee of Eminent Persons, also known as the Volcker
Committee, in its Report on Dormant Accounts of Victims of Nazi
Persecution in Swiss Banks (1999). The committee established that
approximately 54,000 dormant accounts had a "possible or probable"
relationship to Holocaust victims, and of these only half had any real
likely connection. Considering that "the estimated value of 10,000
these accounts for which some information was available runs to $170-200
million," even Raul Hilberg, author of the seminal study The Destruction
of the European Jews, infers that the "current value of the monies
the dormant Jewish accounts is far less than the $1.25 billion paid
Hilberg himself has accused some Jewish organizations of "blackmail,"
and Finkelstein describes in detail how this economic strong-arming
carried out. While the high-powered lawyers representing the
organizations haggled with the Swiss, the Jewish lobby launched an
extensive campaign. This drive included the publication of
studies-supported by the Simon Wiesenthal Center-that accused
Switzerland of "knowingly profiting from blood money" and committing
"unprecedented theft," and claimed that "dishonesty was a cultural
that individual Swiss have mastered to protect the nation's image and
prosperity." Using its leverage, the lobby utilized these allegations
the House and Senate banking committees in order to orchestrate a
"shameless campaign of vilification" against Switzerland, in
Finkelstein's words. Simultaneously, it convinced officials in a number
of states, including New York, New Jersey and Illinois, to threaten
Swiss banks with economic boycott. Finally, the banks bent in response.
Call it what you will, ingenious lobbying or conspiracy theory,
Finkelstein manages to disclose how this well-oiled machine has utilized
abhorrent methods to fill its coffers.
The World Jewish Congress has amassed "roughly $7 billion" in
compensation moneys. One reads that former Secretary of State Lawrence
Eagleburger earns an annual salary of $300,000 as chairman of the
International Commission on Holocaust-Era Insurance Claims, while
ex-Senator Alfonse D'Amato is paid $350 an hour plus expenses for
mediating Holocaust lawsuits-he received $103,000 for the first six
months of his labors. Most of the attorneys hired by the Jewish
organizations earn around $600 an hour and their fees in total have
reached several million. One lawyer asked for "$2,400 for reading Tom
Bower's book, Nazi Gold." These attorneys might be demanding a smaller
fee than is common to such litigation, but even a small percentage
billion dollars is a lot of money. One should keep in mind that
Finkelstein's mother received $3,500 for spending years in the Warsaw
ghetto and in labor camps-the same amount D'Amato made in ten hours'
work. These numbers plainly suggest that the "struggle," as much as
may be about paying damages to victims, has elements of an out-and-out
Finkelstein's analysis here boils down to three major criticisms: First,
US Jewish organizations have been using shady methods to squeeze as
money as they can from European countries; second, while these
organizations "celebrate" the "needy victims," much of the money gained
in the process does not reach the victims but is used by organizations
for "pet projects" and exorbitant overhead salaries; and third, that
Jewish organizations' ongoing distortion of facts and emotional
manipulation foments anti-Semitism. While his arguments are convincing,
his attempt to be provocative leads to carelessness. His claim that
"Holocaust may turn out to be the greatest theft in the history of
mankind" is preposterous, especially considering the history of
imperialism. And yes, the "Holocaust industry" probably engenders some
anti-Semitism; but Finkelstein should also clearly state that any
misbehavior by Jewish organizations does not, and never can, provide
excuse for it.
Finkelstein does not spend all of his ire on his critique of Jewish
organizations; he forcefully condemns US double standards as well.
for example, was a Holocaust museum built on the Washington Mall while
there is no similarly high-profile museum commemorating crimes that
place in the course of American history? "Imagine," he says, "the
wailing accusation of hypocrisy here were Germany to build a national
museum in Berlin to commemorate not the Nazi genocide but American
slavery or the extermination of Native Americans." Along the same line,
the United States pressures Germany to pay compensation for its use
slave labor, but few in government dare mention compensation for
African-Americans. Swiss banks are asked to pay back money taken from
Jews but are allowed to continue profiting from the billions of dollars
deposited by tyrants like Mobutu and Suharto at the expense of
Informing Finkelstein's analysis is a universal ethics, which echoes
Arendt's important claim that Eichmann should have been sentenced for
his crimes against humanity rather than his crimes against the Jews.
book is controversial not entirely because of his mistakes or his
piercing rhetoric but because he speaks truth to power. He, and not
Jewish organizations he criticizes, is following the example set by
great Jewish prophets.